Korean Dress and Adornment

Korean woman in hanbok.

The dress of the Korean people reflects the breadth and depth of their experiences and has resulted in a continuously evolving amalgamation that includes Korean traditions as well as borrowed elements. In the twentieth century, both North and South Korean societies have experienced immense change as a result of the Korean War and the division into South and North Korea. South Korea has experienced rapid industrialization, modernization, and population shifts from rural to urban areas. Provoked by invasions and foreign occupation, South Koreans forged a strong national identity.

During its thirty-five-year annexation, Japan attempted to assimilate the Korean people into the Japanese mainstream and destroy the Korean national identity. Freed from Japanese rule and distanced from their own heritage by almost two generations of occupation, South Korea embraced the culture of their new ally, the United States, following the Korean War, to the extent that any historical customs or ideas contrary to Western culture were seen as old-fashioned and out-of-date, and the traditional culture became the subordinate one. Modernization became the goal, but new values were not securely grafted to those of the traditional. Therefore, while modernization succeeded as an economic and manufacturing goal, it failed as the basis on which to create a new national identity.

In the 1970s, South Koreans realized the necessity of rediscovering their traditional culture to create a unified and identifiable future for their country. Since then, Koreans have been more aware of their traditional values and the symbols that reflect them. They have worked diligently to redefine and reinvent their traditions.

Hobsbawm uses the term "invented tradition" to include both traditions actually invented, constructed, and instituted formally, as well as those emerging in a less traceable manner, but nonetheless establishing themselves within a brief time period. Inventing traditions is a process of formalization and ritualization characterized by reference to the past. "Invented tradition" is defined as "a set of practices, normally governed by overtly or tacitly accepted rules and of a ritual or symbolic nature," which seek to affirm certain values and norms of behavior by repetition, and automatically imply continuity with the past (Hobsbawm and Ranger, p. 1). In a society such as Korea's, with so many rapid changes taking place, tradition had become a necessity to provide a sense of integration and unity for individuals.

Korean traditional dress helps Koreans define their traditional values, such as philosophy, religious attitude, and family relationships. But Koreans have not felt a contradiction in the coexistence of traditional values while adopting those of foreign cultures or searching through their own culture for new ways to express their past. The expressed need is to maintain a culture suitable to the Korean circumstance while continuing the rediscovery and rearrangement of the traditional culture. The valuing of tradition is considered not just sentimental but a necessary aspect of Korean culture.

Traditional dress has become a blend from both traditional Korean history and Western elements, and its form and definition are ever changing, but in an evolutionary process. This helps to interpret and enrich the statement of Linnekin that culture is passed on with each generation creatively adding to its construction.

Traditional Dress Defined

The term Koreans use for traditional dress is hanbok, which means "dress of our race," while yangbok is used to refer to Western dress. These two categories are worn in Korea simultaneously. Though both hanbok and yangbok have influenced each other, they appear distinct from each other in Korean society.

Korean forms of traditional dress for females and males contain many similarities. When stored flat, the parts are basic rectangular shapes, such as the full skirt of the female and the trouser of the male. The prescribed direction and manner of fastening of the parts of the hanbok are very specific. Fabric textures are similar and may be a smooth linen or cotton for everyday and silk or silk-like fabric for ceremony and special events.

Female hanbok consists of two main pieces: the full, floor-length skirt, or chima, which covers the lower torso and legs, and the chogori, which covers the upper torso. The chima, made of three widths of fabric gathered onto a two-and-a-half-inch-wide band, wraps tightly around the body directly under the arms and fastens just above the breasts. The middle skirt panel is placed at the center front of the body and wrapped around to overlap and open on the back left side. The tie band is brought around and secured with a front knot to fasten the skirt. The skirt is fitted to the body at the chest area, and the gathers curve from the chest and then fall to the floor.

The chogori, worn on the upper torso, has a V-neck and is asymmetrical, with an overlap to tie on the wearer's right side. The sleeve is a rectangular shape but with a slight curve on the underarm. The neckband, referred to as the git, began as a rectangle but has evolved to a curved line. The dongjung is a white detachable neckband made of stiff cardboard and wrapped in fabric. It is basted onto the neckband, making it both decorative and easy to replace when soiled. The otgoreum is a tie band that closes the chogori and, when fastened with a one-sided bow, results in a vertical asymmetric line that trails and extends onto the chima. The norigae is a hanging ornament, carefully selected as an accessory that attaches to the tie band. It often consists of beads, tassel, or fringe that swings freely when attached to the skirt band and otgoreum. A long coat, or turumagi, is worn over the chogori and chima in cold weather.

Traditionally the hair is arranged by pulling it back from the face, and secured in a low knot or chignon for married women or a braid for unmarried women. The resulting small, neat head shape is considered an appropriate and pleasing proportion in contrast with the voluminous skirt. A headdress, once an important aspect of traditional dress, is no longer worn. On the feet are worn padded white socks, referred to as beoseon. The padding provides a modified curve that relates to the gentle curves of the rest of the costume. The slipper shoe, komusin, is worn over the padded sock and repeats the gentle curve. Historically made of braided rice straw or silk, by the early twenty-first century the slipper was composed of rubber or leather.

Male traditional dress consists of two parts, paji, the trousers, and a top, chogori. The trousers are cut and sewn from rectangular and triangular shapes. They can be folded flat for storage but are shaped on the body by folding to the right side and fastened with a separate fabric tie. The man's chogori, while similar to that of the woman, is longer, with a wider neckband and shorter ribbon tie. It fastens on the right and has a V-shaped neckline, with a curved neckband and white, stiff detachable band similar to the one worn by the female. A vest of contrasting color is worn over the chogori, then a jacket over the vest to complete the ensemble. The vest and jacket are often of the same color, but contrast with the color of the chogori. A turumagi of dark or subdued color is worn outdoors, and a muffler added in cold weather.

Young males and females wear shapes similar to their adult counterparts, but the fabrics used are more intense primary colors and warmer in hue, such as yellow and red. Another age-based difference is seen on a young child who, for a special event such as a first birthday, wears a chogori with rainbow stripes on the sleeves.

Traditional colors in Korea are primary ones such as red and blue, but muted in intensity. In contrast to the West, white is the color of mourning, though it is also used for trimming the neck of the chogori. Traditional wedding costume is brightly colored, with red for the bride and blue for the groom.

The adoption of certain colors, such as fuchsia or hot pink, resulted from an interaction with Western culture. When Elsa Schiaparelli introduced the color in the 1930s, Koreans discovered that hot pink was flattering to their physical coloring, and thus hot pink was adopted for engagement garb of both young men and women. By the early 2000s, the use of hot pink had come to symbolize the special celebration of the engaged couple.

Some colors are traditionally worn by the elderly or by the married woman with a child, and therefore those colors have become recognized as reflecting the individual wearer and his or her respective status. The use of a color may be identified with a particular year because of its popularity. To be valued, Korean traditional dress must be constant in silhouette and details of layout, but have up-to-date colors and design motifs.

Intricately embroidered panels and motifs used on the elaborate wedding attire of the bride and groom are symbolic of Korean history. For example, the phoenix, a mythical bird, may be combined with clouds, animals such as tigers and deer, or recognizable flower patterns, such as the chrysanthemum. Motifs may become symbolic of cultural values such as long life, or happiness. Many of these motifs originated in China but now have been thoroughly assimilated into Korean culture. Many traditional motifs embedded in Korean history and that were worn by royalty in the past have been adopted by the modern bride or groom and worn as a part of the wedding ceremony. Many ornaments have traditionally been designed to ward off the evil eye. For example, vials of perfume or certain colors have been worn to deflect attention of the evil eye, thus acting to protect the wearer in a symbolic way.

The Role of Korean Traditional Dress

An observer walking on the streets of Seoul, South Korea, would discover that normal everyday dress is Western, or yangbok. There are a few differences when compared to Western dress of other cultures, especially a greater adherence to formality in the appearance of the Korean people. Both men and women in professional positions wear a coordinated suit ensemble, and men adhere to the dark formal business suit, white shirt, and tie for work. Also, because of the physical coloring of the Korean people, certain favorite colors, such as muted golds, browns, and blacks, are often worn. Because the average Korean is small-boned and between five-foot-three and five-foot-seven in height, fit is especially important in the sizing and scale of clothing.

The role of traditional dress in modern Korean society is primarily that of celebration and ritual, with traditional dress most often worn for special occasions such as birthdays, weddings, and other significant events. To serve in a celebratory manner, Korean traditional dress needed to be removed from daily use, as suggested by Hobsbawm. With its use for everyday seen as impractical and not conducive to modern life, historic Korean dress went from being a daily convention to a symbol of the traditional values of the Korean people. For those who continue to wear Korean traditional dress, such as a Buddhist monk or a waitress in a Korean folk restaurant, such modifications make it more wearable for daily use, such as shortening the skirt to ankle length or using washable and durable fabrics. However, some Koreans object to the modifications of traditional dress. Perhaps a modified Korean traditional dress doesn't function as well for celebration because it is more practical and thus loses some of that special celebratory quality.

Traditional dress is a sign and a symbol of Korean culture. To maintain its respected stature within Korean society, some changes in the formal properties of Korean traditional dress are permitted to evolve continuously and yet be perceptible to the informed eye. Shades and hues used for traditional dress may change, but these are not viewed as drastic alterations. Korea's history itself provides much of the justification for change.

Slight variations in detailing and coloration seem to be acceptable in Korean traditional dress, while changes in the silhouette are not so prevalent. The silhouette, shapes, and proportion of the chogori and chima are what make Korean traditional dress recognizable to Koreans. The neckband and asymmetrical tie are details that remain more fixed. Color is a characteristic that identifies Korean traditional dress with specific events and with an individual's selections. For example, pink is for an engagement dress and blue is a good choice for the mature woman. The use of color identification and change in some detailing does not alter the salient characteristics of silhouette, providing a clue to historical continuity and acceptance.

In Korea, traditional dress is worn to express the country's heritage and values. Korean females place importance upon their traditional dress and appearance and appreciate its symbolic nature. As in many cultures, women are usually the purveyors of culture, the arts, and traditions. The use of Korean traditional dress by females as a source of celebration is indicative of gender difference in upholding cultural traditions. Korean women wear traditional dress to show their love for their country and pride in its unique heritage. Korean males wear traditional dress more sparingly in celebration of life events, such as for a first birthday, weddings, or a sixtieth birthday.

An examination of the role historical dress plays in Korean society can illuminate those aspects that make for traditional character. To instill pride and continuity with the past, the traditional garments need to be perceived as stable, even though changes in color and surface motif do persist. Korean traditional dress changes in subtle ways, yet quite regularly, and thus is accorded a fashionable aspect. When questioned, Korean women will express the need to change their traditional dress every three to five years to keep it fashionable. However, this fashion is not determined by the United States, Paris, London, or Milan, but prescribed by Korean dressmakers and scholars of Korean traditional dress. Designers are constantly working on historic renditions of Korean traditional dress that help to interpret the past and then seem to trickle down from a couture house to being more widely available through a dressmaker or department store.

Perceptions of Korean traditional dress are a function of country of residence and age. For example, Koreans living in America have a somewhat different perspective about traditional dress than Koreans living in Korea. Age is a factor in defining perceptions of Korean traditional dress. The younger person is more accepting of modified forms and variety in wearing. These perceptions highlight the amount of change that had occurred in the late 1990s and early 2000s. However, changes in traditional practices of Koreans who live in both the United States and Korea do not seem to signify a lack of respect for traditional habits, but rather, a change in lifestyle.

Peoples of other countries use forms of traditional dress derived from their past that similarly communicate their unique history and culture. In a country where traditional and Westernized components can coexist within the same objects of tradition, its people can draw upon the influence of both. The resiliency of the Korean people has enabled a unique national character to remain paramount, while foreign elements simultaneously become deeply fused to a strong cultural base.

Present Uses of Korean Traditional Dress

Korean traditional dress has been an enduring aspect of Korean culture, historically worn every day by men, women, and children. While it is not unusual to see the elderly man or woman in traditional dress on a daily basis, the younger man or woman restricts its use to more special occasions, and unmarried youths may not wear it at all. While most men rarely dress in traditional garb, the practice of wearing it is far more prevalent for Korean women; still, evidence exists that conventions and routines are changing based upon age and other cultural ties such as marital, economic, or maternal status. With its use primarily restricted to ceremonial occasions, Korean traditional dress is still surrounded by rules of etiquette: who should wear what, how to wear it, and when it should be worn.

Certain occupations require traditional dress for everyday wear, but usually as a symbolic gesture. Those who represent the Korean culture to foreign countries often wear traditional dress. The wife of the president, flight attendants, and even the elevator operator in an international hotel in Seoul may wear traditional dress as a symbol of their country's characteristic dignity and grace.

While traditional dress remains a valued part of Korea's history, to be highly valued it also must appear fashionable. Although traditional dress by definition would seem to demand invariance, in Korea, traditional dress changes quite regularly-but in subtle ways-and is thus accorded a fashionable aspect.

See also Ethnic Dress; Ethnic Style in Fashion.

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Korean Dress and Adornment